In Fisher vs. University of Texas, the Supreme Court heard legal challenges to the University of Texas’s admissions policies, which allow consideration of an applicant’s race in order to promote “diversity” among the school’s students. Such racial preferences are widespread in university admissions. In 80 percent of elite schools, they amount to the equivalent of a 100-point boost in SAT scores, according to research by UCLA law professor Richard Sander and journalist Stuart Taylor.
But even if the Supreme Court strikes down the use of race as a determining factor in admissions, the institutionalized racism and discrimination of university race-conscious admissions criteria will not necessarily be eliminated. Universities will continue to promote identity politics ideology under the guise of “diversity.”
In the oral arguments for Fisher, the conservatives on the Supreme Court left unchallenged the idea of “diversity” as a pedagogical good, focusing instead on the use of race as “the determining factor,” as Chief Justice Roberts said, in admissions decisions.
But promoting “diversity” has been the chief rationale for problematic race-based admissions since the 1978 Bakke vs. University of California case. In the Bakke decision, Justice Lewis Powell put forth the idea that a vaguely defined “diversity” could justify taking account of race. Powell argued that only a “compelling state interest” could justify exceptions to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s ban on discrimination by race. In fact, “diversity,” along with its presumed pedagogical boons, was such a “state interest.”
In 2003, in Grutter vs. Bollinger, the Supreme Court confirmed Powell’s reasoning. As Justice Sandra Day O’Conner wrote, the Constitution “does not prohibit the law school’s narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.” As long as explicit numerical quotas were avoided, universities could take race into account when admitting students.
Justice Clarence Thomas’ dissent in Grutter identified the fatal flaw of such reasoning: the “refusal to define rigorously the broad state interest” served by “diversity.” Nearly a decade later, there still remains a dearth of empirical evidence that shows the assumed “educational benefits” that serve a “broad state interest.” Indeed, in their recent book Mismatch, Sander and Taylor show how racial preferences often harm minority candidates by putting them into academic environments for which they are not qualified, thus ensuring they do poorly or drop out. Likewise, there has not been a coherent, specific definition of diversity itself, which has allowed the concept to be politicized.
Faux Diversity vs. Real Diversity
Now blessed by the Supreme Court, “diversity” has become an article of faith in universities and colleges, accepted without question or analysis of the idea, even in spite of its problematic consequences. It is a self-evident good that often trumps other criteria in admissions, hiring, and curriculum decisions. But “diversity” is a dishonest and incoherent concept. It is premised on an ideologically skewed interpretation of history in which the white man has oppressed and excluded the “other.”
The falsity of the ideological construct of “diversity” is best understood by contrasting it to genuine diversity. Real diversity is enormous in its variety, encompassing scores of ethnic groups, economic strata, regions, political views, and religions. A poor, Catholic, Mexican-Indian immigrant farm worker, for example, is quite different from a middle-class, suburban third-generation mestizo Mexican-American. Yet, at a superficial level, both can be labeled “Hispanic.” This doesn’t tell us anything about what each can uniquely offer to campus “diversity.”
After all, the middle-class Mexican-American will probably have more in common with a middle-class white kid than with the Indian immigrant, who is less likely even to attend college in the first place. Yet, in the university, the second “Hispanic” applicant will be courted and presumed to offer more “diversity” than a poor rural white kid who probably resembles the Indian farm worker in many respects.
The complexities of actual diversity are ignored by its more superficial variant. The contradiction in most universities’ idea of diversity is that it functions in terms of stereotypical, simplistic, race-based categories that ignore all of the other ways in which people are diverse, ways that could actually enrich the university. For example, most universities today are secular and philosophically materialistic; they could use the intellectual diversity that more religious believers might bring to the student body. Wouldn’t those perspectives confer “educational benefits” in the classroom, providing alternative points of view that might enrich the learning experience of their classmates?
Additionally, given that faculties are overwhelmingly liberal, a concern with genuine diversity surely would include the recruitment of conservative students and faculties. But the admissions officers at elite colleges and universities are not worried about having too few Christians or Republicans. Indeed, a sure-fire way for a candidate to be blacklisted in academia is to profess a belief associated with conservativism or Christianity.
Moreover, of all the various categories of diversity—whether ethnic, economic, political, or religious—most universities are really interested in only those minorities that the Civil Rights industry recognizes: Hispanics, African Americans, and occasionally Third-World “persons of color,” no matter how rich and privileged they may be. Indeed, in the Fisher oral arguments, the University’s lawyer explicitly said that a minority applicant from a privileged background would add diversity to the university. It helps that these minority groups have organized vocal lobbies adept at putting together telegenic demonstrations or applying political pressure whenever an administrator does something they don’t like.
Less politically connected groups, however, don’t count when the university frets over diversity. Armenians were subjected to genocide in Turkey, and those who immigrated to America in the early 20th century were discriminated against in California for decades. Real estate covenants in many neighborhoods excluded Armenians along with blacks and Mexicans. But Armenians are not considered to be as “diverse” as a black dentist’s son who grew up in Menlo Park.
Many other ethnic groups, such as Portuguese, Italians, South Asians, Russians, and Poles, are lumped together into the meaningless category “white” and thus, no matter how poor or underprivileged, no matter how long their history of exclusion and discrimination may be, they are deemed irrelevant for increasing campus diversity and providing their classmates with “educational benefits.”
Identity Politics by Another Name
This brings us to the real basis for the definition of diversity prevalent today, which is that it includes only those who were victims of white oppression, prejudice, and racism. The black or the Hispanic student––deemed to be a victim of racist oppression no matter what his economic advantages may be––is courted in order to bring his presumed experiences of oppression to the privileged enclaves of academe.
In other words, most academic “diversity” is really about white guilt and minority payback, a way for affluent, liberal educators to compensate for their privilege by bestowing noblesse oblige on middle or upper class representatives of the oppressed minority “other.” Meanwhile, poor minority students—and poor white students, for that matter—are underrepresented on university campuses. At the 200 most selective universities, only 5 percent come from the bottom 25 percent of the income scale.
As for the minority students who are admitted under the lowered standards that result when race trumps merit, what “educational benefits” do they receive from interacting with students from other groups? Given the self-segregation on many campuses evident in race-based fraternities, clubs, dorms, graduation ceremonies, eating and socializing areas, and courses in ethnic studies programs devoted to the culture minority students presumably already know and supposedly can share with their white classmates, there are not many “educational benefits” moving in either direction.
There is also the stigma that many minority students feel on campus because they know they were admitted under less stringent criteria than many of their peers. Unsurprisingly, minority students often earn lower grades, have a harder time passing licensing tests such as the bar exam, earn fewer degrees in science and engineering, and suffer higher dropout rates than whites and Asians. In 2010, the Education Trust reported that while 60 percent of whites graduate in six years, only 49 percent of Hispanics and 39 percent of blacks do. Young people are paying a steep price so administrators can preen about their “commitment to diversity.”
Despite these problems, diversity has become a thriving industry in American universities, with administrators, programs, and grant money for faculty seeking ways to enhance diversity in their classrooms and in their research. Given diversity’s outsized presence on campus, it is doubtful that a Supreme Court decision striking down the University of Texas’ race-conscious admissions criteria will stop admissions officers from finding other ways to admit minority applicants who don’t meet the academic requirements.
Universities can simply add a proxy for race such as “overcoming challenges or difficulties” or “obstacles overcome,” and weigh those subjective factors heavily enough to overcome any deficiencies in grades or test scores. This sort of procedure is already in use at some colleges, and some research indicates that it functions as a substitute for race. Richard Sander’s research on UCLA’s admissions procedures found that a higher percentage of blacks and Latinos are accepted than whites and Asians with the same “holistic score,” which is a composite of GPA, standardized test scores, and essays documenting “obstacles overcome.”
Given that the “educational benefits” of this “diversity” do not exist, it is clear that a commitment to such superficial diversity is an excuse for racial social engineering and ideological proselytizing. After all, if mixing the races in universities is so pedagogically beneficial, we should be agitating for the traditional black universities, like Grambling and Howard, to increase their diversity by admitting more whites, Asians, and Hispanics.
In the end, focusing on the diversity of skin-tone, hair texture, and surname compromises the most important purpose of the university: imparting an education that trains students to think critically and, in so doing, that liberates their minds from the prison of group-think, whether ethnic, cultural, or political, preparing them for a life of political freedom and autonomy. To achieve that aim, the only diversity that matters is the diversity of individual, disagreeing minds.
Bruce S. Thornton is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He received his BA in Latin in 1975 and his PhD in comparative literature–Greek, Latin, and English–in 1983, both from the University of California, Los Angeles. Thornton is currently a professor of classics and humanities at California State University in Fresno, California. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays and reviews on Greek culture and civilization and their influence on Western civilization. His latest book, published in March 2011, is titled The Wages of Appeasement: Ancient Athens, Munich, and Obama's America.